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Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

Family or Dating Violence

This article provides information about children who are victims of domestic violence, as well as other information. This article was provided by The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) .


What do children need?

We know the answer from our own childhoods. First and foremost, children need a safe and secure home, free of violence, and parents that love and protect them. They need to have a sense of routine and stability, so that when things go wrong in the outside world, home is a place of comfort, help and support.

For too many children, home is far from a safe haven. Every year, hundreds of millions of children are exposed to domestic violence at home, and this has a powerful and profound impact on their lives and hopes for the future. These children not only watch one parent violently assaulting another, they often hear the distressing sounds of violence, or may be aware of it from many telltale signs.

“Me and my sister are scared,” says one nine-year-old girl who lives in a violent home in the United Kingdom. “Our parents fight a lot and we fear they might split up. They fight when we're upstairs. They don't think we know what's going on, but we do.”

Violence in the home is one of the most pervasive human rights challenges of our time. It remains a largely hidden problem that few countries, communities or families openly confront. Violence in the home is not limited by geography, ethnicity, or status; it is a global phenomenon. Several studies also reveal that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to be affected by violence as adults – either as victims or perpetrators.

Children who are exposed to violence in the home are denied their right to a safe and stable home environment. Many are suffering silently, and with little support. Children who are exposed to violence in the home need trusted adults to turn to for help and comfort, and services that will help them to cope with their experiences. Far more must be done to protect these children and to prevent domestic violence from happening in the first place. This report, developed jointly by UNICEF, The Body Shop International and the Secretariat for the United Nations Secretary-General's Study on Violence against Children, examines some of the underlying causes of domestic violence and the impact on children of being exposed to violence in the home

Some of the biggest victims of domestic violence are the smallest

The devastating effects of domestic violence on women are well documented. Far less is known about the impact on children who witness a parent or caregiver being subjected to violence. These children – the forgotten victims of violence in the home – are the focus of this report.

The findings show that children who are exposed to violence in the home may suffer a range of severe and lasting effects. Children who grow up in a violent home are more likely to be victims of child abuse. Those who are not direct victims have some of the same behavioural and psychological problems as children who are themselves physically abused.

Children who are exposed to violence in the home may have difficulty learning and limited social skills, exhibit violent, risky or delinquent behaviour, or suffer from depression or severe anxiety. Children in the earliest years of life are particularly vulnerable: studies show that domestic violence is more prevalent in homes with younger children than those with older children.

An unspoken problem, with no easy answers

Domestic violence is a global problem of enormous proportions. Although men are sometimes victims, the vast majority are women. At least one in every three women globally has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member. One woman in four has been abused during her pregnancy.

Domestic violence can happen anywhere but certain factors seem to increase its likelihood. These include the age of the mother (the younger the mother, the more likely she will become a victim), poverty and unemployment, and alcohol and substance abuse. One study in Canada found that women who lived with heavy drinkers were five times more likely to be assaulted by their partners than those who lived with non-drinkers.

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